Monday, February 07, 2011
Kell's Legend -- An Action Packed Fusion of Legends Past and New Concepts
It is often said that you cannot judge a book by its cover, but we know that isn't entirely true. Marketing departments work hard to ensure that a book's cover conveys a hint of what a book's contents will be. The cover to Andy Remic's book Kell's Legend, published by Angry Robot Books, practically screams at the potential reader.
"Psst! You! Yes, I mean you. You like David Gemmell books right?"
I am a big fan of Gemmell and I admit that the prospect of an author continuing to satisfy my pulp action reading itch is a pleasant one. Gemmell had a way of combining tried and true narrative tropes with interesting characters and pulse pounding action with a hint of moral philosophic undertones. Gemmell's originality as a writer wasn't in plotlines -- some of his most famous books were adaptations of the Spartan stand at Thermopylae and stories of Scottish rebels -- it was in his ability to create human characters in a genre that too often presented ciphers.
By making the comparison to Gemmell, the marketing department set the bar to impress readers fairly high. How did Remic fare?
Kell's Legend -- the title even evokes Gemmell comparisons -- opens with a massive army invasion. From the initial description of the invasion, the reader does not hold much hope for the Kingdom of Falanor to resist the Iron Army that seeks conquest. The Iron Army is more than a disciplined army comprised of skilled soldiers led by a talented commander invading at an opportune moment -- though it is all of those things -- it is also an army that has access to sinister "blood oil magic." This magic can win battles before they even begin as it creates a frightening pogonip like "ice fog" that can freeze defenders, and citizens, to death before the first blow is struck.
This pleases General Graal for many reasons, not the least of which is that his army doesn't merely seek to conquer the Kingdom of Falanor. His army seeks to harvest the blood of Falanor's citizens to provide food for his people to the north. General Graal, and his kin, are a vampiric fusion of man and machine. The country from which Graal hails is one where the citizens are merged with clockwork mechanisms as children in a process that creates a race of vampire machines -- or as the book calls them "The Vachine." The process doesn't go well for every child. There are those whose minds and bodies are twisted in the attempt. These poor souls become the feral "cankers," primitive societal rejects filled with bloodlust and rage.
This is the force that our hero Kell must resist. When the novel opens, Kell is already a legend among his people. His "Days of Blood" are the subject of great ballads that travel the land, but those days are long past. Kell would rather spend his time supporting his granddaughter's pursuit of an education, and leave his bloodbound axe Ilanna hanging on a wall mount. While the axe is mounted, it cannot speak to him, grant him its terrible strength, and he can attempt to forget all of the terrible things he has done. Things that have brought him fame, but at what personal cost.
Through the events of the tale Kell encounters his chief ally, a master swordsman named Saark. Saark is the Grey Mouser to Kell's Fafhrd, the Moonglum to Kell's Elric, the eternal companion. Like Kell, Saark has done horrible things in his past. He too has killed for King and Country, but he has also betrayed them. Saark is a witty and self-loathing character who often takes his own self-hatred out on others. He was once a paragon of virtue and now he wallows in debauchery as a means to punish himself. It is only in meeting Kell and fighting a hopeless battle against the Vachine that Saark can find any possible redemption.
The book has everything one could ask in pulp fantasy. It has pulse pounding action, brooding heroes, elements of horror, clockwork vampires, epic battles, and ancient evils.
Did I mention the clockwork vampires?
Like Gemmell, Remic is working in territory familiar to the fantasy fan, but he combines familiar elements into an engaging tapestry of action. Remic's writing jumps off the page and leaves reader's asking for more as the book's final page ends on a desperate cliffhanger.
Though the book is quite good, it isn't perfect either. The milieu of the novel is filled with allusions to a detailed history, but these allusions often come up after the information might have aided the reader in understanding the context of narrative elements. We are given the name vachine before the term is explained to us. Given that "vachine," and "canker" for that matter, sound like things you might catch frequenting brothels, this is an oversight on the part of the author. When the clumsiness of the introduction of the vachine as race is contrasted with the introduction of the Stone Lion of the Stone Lion Woods, it becomes clear that Remic has a detailed setting from which to draw. I could easily see myself highlighting passages of the book to form the basis of an rpg campaign, there is myth-building going on here. It is just sometimes presented out of order.
Remic also has a penchant for profanity in the book which that can seem shocking at first. The sexual escapades of Saark are a necessary part of the narrative, they demonstrate his self-loathing aptly, but Remic's choice of vocabulary was straight out of Deadwood. Like Deadwood, the reader becomes used to certain characters and their use of what Spock called "colorful metaphors," but one does wonder if the word choice itself is as vital as the scenes where the vocabulary is used. What does the use of the "c" word and "q" word add to the verisimilitude of the tale?
As can be seen from the brief synopsis of the book's opening, Remic draws from many of my favorite fantasy authors for inspiration. Kell's Legend contains echoes of Moorcock, Lieber, Howard, and Gemmell while maintaining a rich originality.
While Remic's book lacks the subversive political critiques of Moorcock, or the Just War undertones of Gemmell's fiction, it does contain imagery that makes for interesting discussion about modern man. By making the results of man and machine into horrifying vampiric creatures, sometimes less than human and sometimes more, Remic allows us to consider the wisdom of fiction's current obsession with "Transhumanism." By becoming more than human, are we really becoming less than human? The industrial nature of the exploitation of conquest itself adds some interesting elements for conversation. When the Vachine invade, they harvest the conquered and prepare them for processing in their "Blood Refineries."
Some may find such descriptions as too "on the nose," but I found them fresh, topical, and engaging.
The battle scenes of Kell's Legend are vivid, the human relationships are compelling, and the hints at the legendary past of the world spark the imagination. That is exactly what one should be hoping for when one opens the pages of a novel.
I am eagerly opening my copy of "Soul Stealers."